Viewpoint: Gold Coast Arts Center plays crucial role in demoralizing times

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Karen Rubin, Columnist

If ever there were a need for a salve for the soul, an elixir for frayed emotions, an escape from tedium, it is now.

More vital than ever in our time of despair, anxiety and isolation yet strangely invisible, the arts are suffering mightily during this coronavirus crisis. The arts have been a saving grace as we are told to shelter in place. But with social distancing and lockdowns, the industry as a whole is holding on by a thread.

Many arts organizations have tried to adapt by plugging into social media and while they are doing their best to keep up society’s morale, they still find it hard to monetize and therefore pay the tens of thousands of people who would otherwise be on stage, in front of camera, as well as backstage, in back offices and in entities that support the arts.

“The arts is the lifeblood of a culture,” said entertainer Billy Porter, promoting a new Be An Arts Hero initiative. “The arts are the first place people go when stuck at home. But 94 percent [of the industry] has lost income.”

Nonprofits can’t afford the lobbyists or the fund-raisers that put them shoulder-to-shoulder with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin or the Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran, who was able to wrangle $700 million to rescue a trucking company that was $100 million in the red before COVID-19, or write into COVID relief the $1.8 billion to make sure Trump Hotel in D.C. doesn’t have competition, or the three-drink tax exemption to benefit Trump hotels.

Yet the arts are a vital industry in itself and in many places provide the underpinnings for an economy. It is not coincidence that fundamental to downtown revitalization efforts are restoration of performance spaces, such as the Paramount in Huntington and the Gold Coast Arts Center in Great Neck.

As the new BeAnArtsHero.com campaign asserts in a “Dear Senators” letter, “the $877 billion our industry generated last fiscal year is about to disappear. The 4.5 percent we added to our GDP—about to vaporize. We are second only to retail as the most powerful economic driver of this economy, boasting an export of $72.6 billion and an annual growth rate of 4.16 percent, nearly double that of the U.S. economy as a whole at 2.2 percent. Without your immediate action for financial relief by August 1, we will collapse, and the result will be an economic cataclysm.”

Broadway theater alone sold more tickets, $1.83 billion, than all the New York and New Jersey sports teams combined, and billions more in the restaurants, hotels, taxis used by theatergoers.

We see it here in Great Neck, with the vital role that the Gold Coast Arts Center plays. The center literally anchors Great Neck in a region, drawing people to classes, concerts, performances, exhibits. But it does so much more.

The arts are a significant part of children’s learning and development. For some students who struggle in more traditional academic settings, the arts provide another pathway for learning as well as expression. They can provide an important source for self-confidence and self-esteem and a constructive, productive outlet for emotions. The arts teach self-discipline as well as teamwork.

With the restrictions and precautions and protocols placed on our schools, it is conceivable that arts programs – music, art, theater – will be curtailed for lack of space, time and budget. This is why the Gold Coast Arts Center will be more vital than ever.

To make it through the current crisis, the Gold Coast Arts Center has devised clever innovations to remain active and relevant and continue to serve a community, which because of the web has gone worldwide. Within one week of the mandatory lock-down, 90 percent of the arts center’s offerings were available online, with private lessons booming and students from as far as Illinois, Colorado and even Jerusalem.

Even the center’s dance team continued to function online, with the camera focused on the instructor’s feet. Ceramics instructor Jude Amsel continued to offer her classes, leaving packages of supplies for parents to pick up, then returned their child’s project for Jude to fire in the kiln. Alexandra Gil, the shorts film curator, is teaching “guerrilla film making” using a cell phone; to help one student who is on the autism spectrum, she made a video of the lesson so he could do it at his own pace.

“Parents were critical to the process,” reflected GCAC Executive Director and Founder Regina Gil. “You don’t have a parent bringing their kid to arts center who isn’t committed to arts education. They are partners with school.”

The Cinema Series was converted to Movies-at –Home virtual screenings (some free; some a 50-50 partnership with distributors through their streaming platform), and have included Q&As with filmmakers. A newly launched Cultural Insider Series offers conversations with icons among filmmakers, authors, comedians, artists.

A new option is a POD class of six students, with the teachers customizing classes to fit their specific interests, schedule and level. The arts center also hopes to offer some in-person classes, such as in dance, along with a new line-up of virtual offerings.

The arts center will celebrate the 10th annual Gold Coast International Film Festival this year with a mid-October Virtual Film Festival, offering a hybrid model of virtual screenings and drive-ins. The hallmark workshops, Q&As with filmmakers and other special events will be incorporated.

Even the annual gala, the biggest fund-raiser of the year, will be done virtually, in September.

Now, with Long Island in Phase 4 reopening, the center has begun to offer art classes outside, along a strip in the parking lot (with a permit from Great Neck Plaza), with carefully measured spacing and mandatory masks. Going forward, the center is looking at ways to continue to offer as much programming as possible.

Some of these innovations might be maintained. Indeed, the arts center discovered that it is no longer bounded by geography. And while some important donors and sponsors (Neiman Marcus, the main sponsor of the film festival, declared bankruptcy) have faced hardship, new partnerships and alliances are being forged.

The Gold Coast Arts Center deserves the support of our community, our region, the county, the state and the nation.

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